Thursday, November 1, 2007

REVIEW: Pagoda Inn- ***1/2 / $

Originally an Inn for horse-riding travelers (the horse tie posts are still standing), this little piece of the east became the Pagoda Inn in 1966 and has been owned by the Chan family since 1993. The matriarch, Cindy Chan, oversees most of the restaurants operations whilst her husband, Fung, handles the kitchen. The Chan's purchase back in 1993 was something of a God-send to local Chinese lovers since the options in town were pretty grim. Cindy's business acumen and Fung's kitchen skills have since transformed Pagoda into one of Rhode Island's best Chinese restaurants.

Entering, the dining area isn't as tacky as many Chinese places seem to get, being tastefully colorful with the expected smattering of photos from China. I'm just glad there aren't large, ceramic dragons everywhere, staring at you like they want information. The seats are all comfortable and hug your bum nicely, but some are a bit tattered from years of wear. Take-out is the foundation of their business, so you rarely have to wait for a table. Service is fantastically friendly. Some of the nicest I've met.

Upon sitting you're met with a rather standard array of Chinese offerings. It's the quality and depth of flavor that separates their food. Their fried rice is complex, with a variety of ingredients that other establishments seem to ignore, such as green onions. Standouts are their crab rangoons, sweet & sour pork, and a house-made duck sauce that is to die for. As the years have gone on, a few items have also seen a drop in quality, such as the General Tso's Chicken. Perhaps they're training new chefs, but that, combined with some items being overcooked, detracts from the overall experience. In comparison to other chinese places, everything stands up well, even the recipes that have withered. It's just not as good as it once was.

Other items are fairly by-the-numbers, but it's all cooked with great skill and choice ingredients, save for the use of dark meat instead of white in the General Tso's. The drink menu, compliments of bartender Kyle Chen, is diverse and colorful. It's a treat for those who like wild-looking drinks. Previously, like most Chinese places, the dessert menu was non-existent. Recently, though, the son of the owners, Danny, has begun baking and now offers a wide array of baked goods under the wildly inventive name, "Desserts by Danny." He uses real butter in his desserts, no shortening, and it shows. They are quite delicious and I recommend taking a package home.

Pagoda Inn's food may have warranted a full five stars not too long ago. The options for Chinese were just so dreadful in South County that the existence of such good food should have been sang on high. But, with the emergence of Seven Moons nearby, it is no longer the far-and-away best. And if you're willing to travel outside of a town, many other places with good food have opened. As the overall quality of Chinese increases, so does the bar for what defines average. I seriously doubt Pagoda Inn could ever be called average, but while its traditional recipes are some of the best Chinese-American this side of Chinatown, they lack inventiveness and flair. There needs to be something more to call a restaurant a true destination. Even still, if you find yourself in North Kingstown area, and hanker for some Chinese, Pagoda Inn remains one of the local greats, and should be on the top of your list.

Pagoda Inn: ***1/2
Price range for two: $15-$30

Pagoda Inn
7315 Post Road
North Kingstown, RI 02852

Sunday through Thursday, 11:30am to 10:00pm
Friday & Saturday 11:30am to 11:00pm

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